Do you enjoy watching CSI drama? Then you might have a question whether or not there is a similar institution in Korea or what they really do. The Sookmyung Times (SMT) met Hwa-kyung Choi(Choi), ph.D of NISI (National Institute of Science Investigation). She will satisfy your curiosity of NISI.
SMT : What does a Narcotics Analyst do exactly?
ChoI : In Korea, having, using, making, cultivating and distributing drugs are illegal acts. We analyze the people doing these illegal acts to establish whether they really possess or do drugs. The police request us after seizing property from people suspected to have drugs. Also, our laboratory deals with work related to crime. Sometimes members of the public ask us to investigate their children, but they are not allowed to request his. Investigating only illegal acts as requested by the police or public prosecutor is our job. Doing drugs or not is very important. To prove it, a sample from the suspect’s body is essential. Almost every medicine we take has an effect by circulating in the blood and then ingredients are excreted from the body in urine. Because of this, urine is the best sample for doping tests. However, ingredients of drugs are excreted for only seven days. To prove whether someone did drugs one month or more ago, we use hair. The root of a hair and its capillary vessel are connected. Drugs circulating in our body in our blood go to the hair; first at the root, and as the hair grows it moves, too. If the person doesn’t get their hair cut, drugs which they took one year ago remain in their hair. We have three laboratories; for inspecting blood or urine, for hair and for confiscated goods.
SMT : I heard that using hair for doping test first started in Korea. Could you tell us about it?
ChoI : Using hair for doping tests is not the world’s first, but the first in Korea. In Korea, the conditions for effective studying are not good. In the case of medical supplies, we have to monitor the effect of medicine through testing people by letting them take medicine. But it costs a fortune and there isn’t a law for it. In fact, we make medicine based on studies conducted abroad. I went to the U.S. in 1992 and learned about the doping test which uses hair. From the experiments in the U.S., I prepared our equipment and started using hair for doping tests from 1993.
SMT : When do you feel worthwhile as a member of NISI?
ChoI : I feel fruitful whenever I solve a case. I can’t choose the most worthwhile one, but in most cases, a thousand emotions crowd my mind. Of course, I feel unburdened after I find a criminal, but at the same time I wonder why he or she took these drugs. For example, when I worked in the drug & toxicology department, which collects blood and contents from the stomach, a six-yearold girl fell down and died, but we couldn’t know the reason for it even after performing an autopsy. When we couldn’t find the cause of her death, we worried and even dreamed about it. Finally after a long time, we thought of antifreeze solution. In those days, antifreeze solution had a sweet scent and its color was green like a delicious beverage. Hence, the girl drank it because she thought that it was soda. It was lucky that we learned the cause, but at the same, being in her mother’s shoes, it was heartbreaking because I also have children. However, in general, it is very worthwhile to find the cause of death or evidence of a criminal. I think this sense of worth and achievement is the reason why workers in Drug & Toxicology or Narcotic Analysis stay in their jobs.
SMT : What is the toughest thing about your work?
ChoI : We call our work a ‘3D (Dirty,Dangerous, Difficult) job,’ because the sample is filthy. There are many people who quit this job since they can’t stand the blood or contents of the stomachs of the dead. Also, we don’t know enough information about the dead such as whether they have diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis or pneumonia, so it can be dangerous. In addition, operations here are intense and mistakes are unpardonable. A mistake can make a guilty person innocent or an innocent person guilty. Even though those things make me stressed, I have a sense of duty in that I can shed light on the dark side of society.
SMT : Is there any misconception when people think of CSI and NISI?
ChoI : CSI is just a serial drama. Every investigation is carried out fast and everything turns out very clearly. To frank, we think it does not make sense. Some parts are fiction and some parts are nonfiction. Our job requires great responsibility. As I said before, mistakes are not allowed here. Also, we have to see wicked and bad cases all the time which the public doesn’t know and doesn’t have to know.
SMT : Do you have a vocational disease because your job needs accuracy and sharpness?
ChoI : My children are the biggest victims. Whenever I can’t connect with my children, I worry about them. I think that they have been kidnapped or something. Also I talk about every dangerous situation that I encounter in cases. In addition, the drugs in hair are measured in nanograms and in urine they are measured in micrograms. Those are invisible and thus we have to be meticulous and careful to work well. When other people spill one drop of oil, I ask,“Why did you drop it?!” because if we spill even one drop when we experiment, that one drop can make the experiment fail. Therefore I have an obsession that not even one drop can be spilled.
SMT : The public don’t think that narcotic cases are common in Korea. Is that true?
ChoI : Narcotic cases, I feel, are serious. That’s because they do not appear on the surface. However, nowadays, people buy and sell drugs through the Internet or express mail. In the past, people bought drugs in person. As the Internet has developed, people in Korea can get drugs more easily from abroad. The police can’t check all baggage and mail. They only check suspicious mail. People start to take drugs out of curiosity at first and from that they take drugs forever. There are four characteristics of drugs; when you get used to drugs, your desire for them grows, and the amount you take increases. And if you quit taking drugs, you will experience serious withdrawal symptoms. Lastly, drugs are a social malady. Evidence of drugs is increasing and there are many new kinds of drugs on the market. We can’t catch the people who take drugs out of curiosity. We just check the suspected people. People say, Korea is not dangerous because of drugs.